Frayed Relationships

A new book says foundations and educational institutions don't always see each other in the best light -- but both sides want better cooperation.
November 17, 2006

A book released Thursday finds that the historically significant relationship between foundations and educational institutions is “seriously frayed” and even, “in some places ... in tatters.”

While the editors of Reconnecting Education & Foundations: Turning Good Intentions into Educational Capital ( Jossey-Bass, 2006) found that the total dollar amount of grants allocated to higher education by foundations continued increasing through the 1990s to a total of $7.1 billion in 2004, they noted that some of the major foundations, including The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Atlantic Philanthropies, had shifted their priorities away from traditional K-12 and higher education. Their data suggests that the 100 largest foundations comprise an increasingly small share of the total amount of foundation giving to higher education, falling from 41 percent in the 1990s to just 29 percent in 2004.

“In recent years, some of the largest and most active foundations have pulled back from the field of education, especially higher education,” said Lee S. Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which commissioned the book after launching a 30-month investigation in 2004.

Seeking to test their “sense of growing disconnects between foundations and education,” lead researchers and editors Ray Bacchetti, a scholar-in-residence with Carnegie and a former vice president at Stanford University, and Thomas Ehrlich, a senior scholar at Carnegie and former president of Indiana University, asked education and foundation leaders what they really thought of one another. The answer? Let’s just say there’s room for improvement.

Foundation leaders say higher education institutions lack accountability, set their own agendas and are self-contained bubbles isolated from surrounding social issues. They say that elite colleges feel little need to change, that colleges continue to primarily utilize the lecture format in undergraduate instruction despite advances in learning and that schools of education on some campuses aren’t respected, and frankly, don’t deserve respect or funding. Furthermore, they say that, given the more than 3,500 colleges in the country, the leverage of a grant to one individual institution often seems too small.

In turn, education leaders call foundation heads “lousy lovers” who abandon their pet projects “in their hurry for fast results.” They say foundations are overly focused on measurable outcomes, talk about collaboration but don’t collaborate, have opaque decision-making processes that generally lack accountability and can’t identify and correspondingly reward the types of innovative projects they claim to seek. They say foundations have little experience with organizational strategy in educational institutions and, not understanding education, will “reinvent the wheel every time.”

Furthermore, both sides lament the lack of honesty in their interactions, with "foundations over-expecting, grant-seekers over-promising, and, in the end, both sides over-claiming."

"It's a mating dance," said Ehrlich.

Yet, Ehrlich said there is a "deep longing" among both foundations and educational leaders to improve relations. The book outlines a series of recommendations to that effect, specifically among them that foundations and educational institutions should partner to build what Bacchetti and Ehrlich call “educational capital.” By gearing investments toward teaching and learning initiatives grounded in research and experience, with each proposal including a road-map outlining a project’s staying power and featuring built-in assessment measures at every stage, foundations can help ensure their resources are best spent to “work harder and smarter and have a longer reach in time and across the relevant educational universes.” Other recommendations include fostering a more open flow of information between foundations and colleges, sponsoring professional development for grant-givers and grant-seekers, encouraging foundations to use external reviewers and promoting greater collaboration.

Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said that while some foundations may have withdrawn their support for higher education, they did so after making “deposits” and, as such, “islands of innovation” exist at colleges throughout the country. Schneider said much of the educational capital existing on these islands, “not always with bridges,” is being lost because of a lack of communication among institutions . At the same time, however, she expressed frustration that many of the improvements being obtained in higher education are invisible: “Even to those who fund it, even to those who fund it.”

William Porter, executive director of the Portland, Oregon-based Grantmakers for Education, a coalition of more than 200 foundations, corporate giving programs and individual donors, pointed out that while the book is critical of foundations, it is critical of educators as well. He said foundations continue to place a great priority on enacting change through financing education and added that the Carnegie recommendations complement a set of principles on “effective education grantmaking” recently released by the Grantmakers for Education.

“The wrong headline for the report is that philanthropy is giving up,” Porter said. “Philanthropists, donors, grantmakers are human too, can also make mistakes, but I think there’s a willingness in the field to try to do better and to try to tackle the need for student achievement.”

“I’d also quibble with the argument that some of these larger givers have gotten out of the business,” said Porter, who pointed out that two specific foundations cited in the book, Atlantic and Pew, have both shifted their focus to other agendas that still center around educational outcomes: Atlantic invests heavily in non-school-based programs for youths, he said, while Pew focuses on pre-kindergarten initiatives.

“We shifted our focus to pre-K for a couple of reasons, primarily that our foundation is always concerned about the return on investment,” said Susan Urahn, managing director of state policy initiatives at Pew, which five years ago, had an education division that focused primarily on higher education.

“Having limited dollars in reference to a large system like education, it’s very hard to find out where you can have the most significant impact. By investing in three or four year olds you could basically save costs in terms of remediation and educational achievement down the line.”

In addition to the offering the recommendations, Reconnecting Education & Foundations consists of essays and case studies from experts on education and foundations. Topics include the patron versus bully role of foundations in higher education and the impact of the rise of conservative foundations on education.

Five foundations were among those funding the study and resulting book.



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